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Hi Professor Sutton, well, this is a bit of a different and controversial twist - but I'd like to throw out there: is being self-centered necessarily the same as being a jerk?

I think the study above definitely suggests that as one gains power or as one's individual skills, talents, are reinforced as "successful," that one gains a certain self-confidence or self-centeredness. However, I don't necessarily believe that this makes you apathetic or antagonistic to other's needs and preferences. Just because you are right doesn't mean you have to assume that everyone else is wrong - maybe those who are simple-minded do, but those with more critical judgment can remain consciousness while also having central and individual focus.

I appreciate the suggestions that managers should live in the footsteps of their staff to really understand what's going on - but again, I'd like to challenge this. Why aren't your people just telling you what's wrong on the line? Why do you have to do the job for a half day to figure it out? If I were on the line, I'd much rather that my boss simply accept and understand my counsel rather than feel like he had to cross-check me by doing my job himself.

When you become a leader, one of your principle functions is to be aware of what's going on both in and outside of your team. If you individually choose to misuse your position of power and fail to perform that function, you are individually a crappy leader. I don't think the power did it to you.


Here is a picture of President Bush holding up the US flag backwards at the Olympics. Of course, from his perspective, it looks just fine...

Jeff Wiebe

Another extremely thought provoking entry, and good comments. Thanks all.


Actually, this starts long before people become managers in organisations. Researchers have found that the position you have amongst your siblings influences your life. If you are first-borne, you develop "domination strategies" to retain your elevated position amongst your younger brothers and sisters. A lot of managers are first-borne. The last-borne, on the other hand, need to develop alternative strategies to be successful in life. They become creative and inventive, and they will try new ways until they are successful. First-born understand hierarchies and responsibility, while last-born are more unconvential.

Bob Sutton


Good question. There are two kinds of experiments about dampening effects that I don't think have been done, although I recall them being proposed: 1. conditions that make followers perspectives more vivid and 2. Conditions that reduce status differences. So, the last Toyota CEO -- I can;t recall his name -- used to say that every manager and executive should have to wash their hands 5 times a day, because they should be on the line getting dirty. That is an intervention that should have both effects.


I wonder what this experiment would look like if run within an evidence-based management culture like Toyota or Honda, where managers get out to where the problems are and, by extension, are likely to have more empathy/understanding of their employees.

ezer knegdo

How can leaders fight the tendency to become alpha-males/females? Attend some funerals. Puts the whole thing in perspective. Write a eulogy for yourself. How do you want people to eulogize you? As an asshole, or as a strong and respectful leader who recognized and emphasized the work of others? The difficulty is that most of the people who turn into assholes as a result of being given power lose the ability for self-reflection. Others have to hold up the mirror for them. This was an interesting post, btw. Thanks.

Rick Hamrick

The answer given by Quovadis is the only one I have seen actually work.

If one wishes to retain perspective, one must once in awhile take on in every way the view of the employee. How? By doing their job for half a day or even longer. By reflecting on what one exeriences after that shift with a group of the people who do that job every day.

While all CEO's cannot do all the jobs within their companies, there are management-level staff who *can*...and can report up the chain on what they discover!

In my own experience, there is far too much information (and I mean that in the loosest sense--not necessarily valuable information) flowing from the top down in big companies, and nowhere near enough real gritty experience-relating pushing its way up from the front line.

That disconnect feeds the very chasm between the ivory tower and the people who face the customer, resulting in the symptom Quovadis recounts: employees often see top management as jerks with no clue. In fact, the top execs prove their cluelessness in the nonsense they direct downward.

I'm painting the worse-than-average case, here. Sadly, not the worst case.


When I used to manage large groups of people, I found the easiest way to keep my feet on the ground, was to spend a day on the front line. i.e. taking phone calls on the help desk, or dealing face to face with customers. During that day, I could not access any of the normal supports I had, e.g PA or ringing relevant line managers. It made me realize how little I knew about what was really going on in the company. It also brought home to me
a)how difficult it was to actually make changes that did not make employees lives more difficult.
b)how difficult in general it is to make positive changes
c)that employees often (rightfully and with good cause) saw top management as assholes!
d)doing the employees job was often more stressful than my own!

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